Lift attendants don’t always get the love and appreciation they deserve. They toil away for hours at a time performing repetitive tasks. Not surprisingly, they are among those most likely to move on after a few months on the job. Yet, lifties represent a critical nexus between a resort and its guests. Every guest who rides a lift has some kind of contact with at least one lift attendant, if not several, during a ski day. A positive guest experience, as well as operational safety—both foundational components in any resort’s success—are in the balance with every liftie interaction. Hence, the importance of a comprehensive and effective lift attendant training program.
“It’s a paycheck-to-paycheck kind of job,” says Ryan Forbes, vice president of operations at Stevens Pass in Washington. The relatively high turnover in the position means someone like Forbes has the task of replacing 40 to 60 percent of his 80-person lift staff every year.
The basic nuts and bolts of the job, of course, are not terribly complicated. Someone can be taught how to load a lift or check tickets in a matter of minutes. But doing so with a cheery smile and a helping hand, time after time, comes only with practice. And attentiveness, courtesy, responsiveness, and preparedness in case of an emergency—the stuff of a fully competent liftie—are learned only through hours of well-organized training, supplemented by continuing, on-the-job education. “It’s way more than just butts in chairs,” says Tim Bruce, a loss-control specialist for SafeHold Special Risk, a major resort insurer.
The other, especially vital aspect of liftie training is liability. How a lift team—operator, loader, ticket checker, et. al.—handles a potential or actual mishap can have legal consequences. Any small mistake could result in injury and financial repercussions, which is a big reason why leading resort insurers have become involved in helping resorts develop effective training programs.
Dylan West is assistant vice president for MountainGuard, which helps resorts with loss-control services. Other than mechanical malfunctions, says West, “nine of 10 [lift accident claims] occur against the attendant or operator.” That is why “a failure to train properly” can have dire financial consequences.
Good training, says West, starts with not just teaching how to operate a lift, but also understanding the complete mechanics of it. If a lift is experiencing mechanical issues, lifties are often in a position to recognize that something’s wrong and notify the lift mechanics—if they know what to look and listen for.
The next step is to infuse trainees with a sense of duty and responsibility, or “giving employees more stake in what they are doing,” says West. That means engendering an appreciation for where lifties fit into the overall business structure, and emphasizing the importance of following rules and procedures (e.g., filling out daily log books) to ensure a safe and smooth operation.
Attending to the Details
Bruce says that while most resorts do a good job of liftie training, they often allow themselves to become squeezed by time constraints. When it comes to lifties, he says, they are typically “brought in at the eleventh-and-a-half hour” in the fall—another consequence of being low-on-the-totem-pole employees. While a resort might have a good training concept, lifts could very well be up and running before attendants have come to terms with the full responsibilities of their jobs.
“A comprehensive training program is key,” says Mike Rumrill, lift operations supervisor for Mount Sunapee Resort, N.H., which employs 60 to 70 lifties—loaders, ticket checkers, and supervisors—in the winter. In Mount Sunapee’s training program, Rumrill starts with distributing two publications to his staff: one a Sunapee-specific training manual, and the other a more generic lift-operation manual.
Bruce agrees that every resort should have its own training manual that is “a living document”—regularly updated to incorporate changes in procedures or technical lift operations. That said, Bruce cautions that a manual should not be too long, or it won’t be fully read and absorbed. “Boil it down to the pertinent information,” he says. Also useful in the publication package are NSAA training documents and films.
After Sunapee employees receive their manuals, they go through a general orientation, followed by lift-ops orientation, and then finally a hands-on training day or two, depending on the time available. Rumrill tries to keep groups small—six to seven per group is the number he shoots for.
Included in the lift-ops orientation is usually a roundtable discussion of situations that might arise and how lift operators might address them, even if, as people like Rumrill and Bruce readily acknowledge, every possible incident can’t be covered in training.
Still, West talks about covering “the most common incidents,” after which West suggests “challenging” liftie trainees with the question: “How do I determine what goes into turning an incident into a claim?”
“You can’t train them for every situation,” says Forbes. “But what you can train them to do is watch—watch people come up, watch them get on the lift, watch them go up the line.”
To supplement classroom sessions, training videos can also be a useful tool. Bullwheel Productions produces a nine-video liftie training package that covers everything from the detailed mechanical operation of lifts to liftie responsibilities. Each video includes a practice quiz, followed by a final exam. According to Bullwheel president James Dubendorf, the video approach to training is in keeping with a trend in many professions toward online training programs, through YouTube and other sites.
Video training can be especially helpful for training mid-season hires, when supervisors are out on the mountain and unable to devote time to classroom sessions. But, Dubendorf acknowledges, “We have no illusions of replacing hands-on training.”
Indeed, the continuing education and on-the-job mentoring that happens after formal training sessions is a critical second part of an overall training concept.
As Bruce puts it, “Even though you might train employees well initially, that doesn’t mean they’ll execute.” That is especially true in a job that involves the same exercise repeated approximately every six to eight seconds.
“It’s more important what you do after [the classroom training],” says Forbes. At Stevens Pass, a first-time liftie spends his or her first eight to 10 days shadowed by an experienced lift operator. That costs the resort money—effectively having two people responsible for a one-person job. But Forbes says, “we suck it up,” determining that having well-trained lifties from the get-go is worth the extra expense.
West suggests starting new employees at easier lifts, such as conveyor lifts, while giving more experienced employees more difficult assignments, such as loading fixed-grip chairs. Regardless, having roving supervisors mentoring and shadowing, while observing lift attendants’ job performance, are essential steps as a follow-up to initial training.
Bruce talks about looking for “coaching moments” and to “coach them up” to a better job-performance standard. He suggests occasionally trying an almost stealth approach to supervision, which can be effective, determining “how [lifties] are performing when they don’t know they are being evaluated.”
An Ounce of Prevention …
Lift-loading mishaps, as a percentage of all loadings and unloadings, are rare—one or two a day per lift is probably a ballpark figure. Mishaps that result in injury are even less common, and injuries that result in legal claims are much rarer still. Nevertheless, essential to any training program is detailing what’s expected of a liftie—logistically, procedurally, and legally—when an injury does occur.
That starts, again, with being observant, says West, by noting every detail involved in an incident. Lifties need to be taught the basics of writing and illustrating an incident report clearly, legibly, in detail, and with good grammar. Should a claim go to court, the clarity of a report, both in words and diagrams, can reflect on “how credible and how competent you are,” says West.
Lifties might be the low-paid salt of the ski-resort earth, often overlooked in the resort-staff chain of command. But putting a little time and money into training them properly can be one of the best investments a resort can make.